Two Laws and Constitutional recognition.

Cultural warning – Contains images of significant people who have passed away.

At the end of 1989, when i was leaving Tennant Creek (NT) after a decade of involvement in land rights and related matters, I attended a large meeting of senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men at the Jurnkurakurr Outstation Resource Centre.

Jurnkurakurr is the name of a famous Wirnkarra (‘Dreaming’) site locate in Warumungu country close to the old Telegraph Station on Tennant Creek to the north of the present town. One very senior Alyawarra lawman (M.Butcher) told me that it “was like a university”. An initiated man had to be very educated to pass through the law business there. These matters are invisible to the uninitiated.

I had worked with these men over the last ten years. It was time for me to move and i explained to these senior men that one task i wanted to address was to get constitutional recognition of First Peoples. I showed them a copy of the Australian Constitution. It was all news to them. They had their own law.

Gaining some understanding of the Ways of First Peoples has been my lot for most of my adult life. I know that the knowledge senior lawmen hold is a vital part of the cultural core of well-formed life in this country.

These senior lawmen embody systems of law which lie at the core of First Peoples Ways. Only those initiated into their systems of law (not me) can make informed decisions about important life matters.

Well, much time has passed and i am now completely out of touch with those men, many of whom have (sadly) passed away during the last 27 years. While I am sure they have been replaced by another generation of lawmen, what follows needs to be read in light of a perspective which is largely frozen in 1989.

National Indigenous Constitutional Convention Uluru – May 2017

I have, of course, followed the debate about Constitutional Recognition and i am aware of the very limited degree of recognition Anglo-Australian politicians have in mind when they discuss this matter. It certainly far less than what i had in mind when i met with the senior lawmen in 1989. I think this is the idea the non-indigenous politicians have in mind when the talk of recognition of First Peoples:


(Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales c 1826 by Augustus Earle)

Bungaree no doubt had his own reasons and agency for exploring the new European fashions. What was lacking then – and is still lacking now – is a complementary image of a non-indigenous person of authority properly painted up in the designs of this country’s First Peoples.

Earlier in the 1980s, i had worked (Senior Anthropologist, Land Claims) at the Central Land Council when Wenten Rubuntja was the Chairman. He was my boss and i certainly embraced his vision of cultural partnership – peaceful and respectful co-existence without domination.

This he later displayed so graphically in his “Atnengkerre Atherre Akwete – Two Laws Together” poster for the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

Wenten’s painting graphically presents two very different forms of representation – both of which he had mastered. Bi-culturally balanced! The implicit challenge is for us non-indigenous people to do likewise.

Two Laws Together


Recently indigenous people from the area of the Northern Territory covered by the Central Land Council met at Ross River, near Alice Springs/Mparntwe, to prepare for a meeting on Constitutional recognition to be held at Uluru in 24-26 May.  See their media release at:

I was delighted to see this, in light of my undertaking in 1989, as i knew the kind of message which the senior men from the Tennant Creek area would bring to such a meeting and – as a consequence – to the important Uluru National Constitutional Convention.

Then i took the time to read the story a little more closely. My delight faded somewhat. The CLC meeting had elected 10 delegates to attend the National Convention at Uluru in May.

… the meeting elected mostly young and middle aged people to seek consensus at Uluru on a referendum question to put to all Australian voters.

“I was quite overjoyed that we had a number of young people who had the confidence to stand up and make comment. They want to learn more. They were really engaged and really excited to be part of this journey,”


My simple rule of thumb in trying to make sense out of complex life system is to look at who is systematically excluded. That helps you sort out a heap of confusing information.

There has been a psychic war been waged against First Peoples senior lawmen since the arrival of Europeans in this country. The present 1901 Australian Constitution is a classic example.

There is a strong Westernising influence at work in contemporary Australian life by the dominating mainstream where certain ‘acceptable’ people are ‘unconsciously’ selected and promoted.

Senior lawmen are the very last people to be meaningfully engaged by those processes which originate in – and are subtly controlled by – the mainstream Australian political system.

So, noting that i am well and truly out of the loop in terms of what is happening with senior lawmen and the vastly important issues of Constitution reform and recognition of the law they uniquely embody, i can only pose a question.

Where are the senior lawmen in this 2017 scheme of things for the reform of the Australian Constitution to recognise First Peoples?

This is not clear from the CLC release after the Ross River meeting. That release says:

“The 10 delegates plan to meet in the coming weeks in order to prepare for the Uluru convention.”

So –  where are the senior lawmen in this scheme of things? How can these mostly young and middle people (men? women?) represent senior lawmen in this process? Do they have any real understanding of the esoteric and closely guarded knowledge held by senior men? If not, which experiences and/or master narrative will they have to rely on when, with the best of intentions, they try to fulfill the heavy responsibilities which have been placed upon them at this crucial time?

I am someone who longs to see proper (full and robust) recognition of this countries First Peoples – as cultural partners – by the Anglo-Australian authorities and non-indigenous peoples. This is fundamentally important to re-balance and heal life here for all people.

While i do not know the answer to the key question of the present role of senior lawmen in the ‘Recognise’ campaign, What i do know is this:

without significant and empowered participation by senior indigenous lawmen in the Constitutional reform process (and the National Convention) any reforms will be as hollow and empty as the original British document which we know as the 1901 Australian Constitution.

I am also well aware there is a substantial campaign by some First Peoples opposing any Constitutional reform since it is most likely to be another false dealing by Anglo-Australian state authorities – preserving their weatlh and privileges at the expense of the original peoples well-being.   These First Peoples have valid concerns which must be addressed – to their satisfaction.

We will all need to come together in real solidarity to gain proper and respectful recognition of this country’s First Peoples. It is long overdue.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

Coledale, NSW